“The Nightmare before Christmas”

                                                              November 30, 2014


Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37


For some reason, as Advent begins this year, I find myself thinking about Jack the Pumpkin King—the lead character in that strange film, The Nightmare before Christmas. In recent years Jack and the other characters have become staples for Christmas as well as for October.

If you haven’t seen the movie, well, Jack does a great job of presiding over Halloween, making it scarier each year. So when he discovers Christmas, Jack is confident that he can do a better job with it than Santa Claus and his ilk.

At Christmas, however, nothing seems to go right. A child pulls a shrunken head out of a gift-wrapped box, a brother and sister are chased by their scary presents, and a snake starts to swallow one family's tree.

It is a nightmare. Nothing seems go right. Nothing seems to be right.

You've got to feel a little sorry for Jack the Pumpkin King, mostly because he reminds us of many people that we know, maybe even ourselves: trying for a merry Christmas but with less than perfect results.

Advent, this season that begins four Sundays before Christmas, is intended to give each of us some much-needed time to prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming Christ. As we start our Christmas preparations this year, however, there is that vague sense that things are not right.

A.O. Scott put it as well as anyone, when he wrote in the New York Times a couple of days ago: “For the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve been preoccupied…by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality, [and] the collapse of the middle class…  Closer to home, I’m…worried about my neighbors, anxious about my children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my country.”

For many, December only highlights the misery.

Our world and our lives are trouble places, nightmarish at times. In such a world, we want to join with the prophet Isaiah in crying out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

The temptation is to give in to the present—to accept that what is is all that can be, all that will be.

These days invite us once more to keep awake, to stay alert in the faith that God’s promises are good, that, as Isaiah put it: “God works for those who wait for God.”

Some time ago I found myself, as I often do, in a hospital waiting room, sitting with members of a family while someone was in the operating room. In this case, it was a child having heart surgery. At one point his father turned to me and said: “You must do a lot of waiting.”

It was a unique way to describe my work, but I smiled with recognition. Another person had seen that much of my job is—how can I put this?—hanging around, being present, watching: biding my time with others while we move through major events of living and dying. I wait and watch in the hope that God is to be found just at such times.

I want to call this “holy waiting,” not to make it sound more important than the waiting other people do or to suggest it's only done by “clergy types.” It is holy because it is a waiting that is set apart and filled with power. Holy waiting—which all of us do—is active and immersed in the reality of this world.

Some waiting does change us. Think of waiting for test results to come back, waiting for a child to be born, waiting for healing, waiting to receive news of a loved one far away. As we wait, we learn again just how much we need each other.

In actively waiting, we are involved fully in this present world with the conviction that God is at work where we are. We do not flinch from the unpleasant realities of the present, but neither do we take them as the final word.

In our waiting and watching the psalmist invites us to be honest before God about our world, our lives, our dreams and our nightmares.

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel. . . stir up your might, and come to save us!” If Advent is the time of preparation for the coming of the incarnate Shepherd, we can start by confessing with the psalmist our own longing for deliverance. Some are reluctant to speak like this before God, fearing that such a lament indicates a lack of faith. But Advent is a time to name, to mourn, to rage against the seeming absences of God.

The people of Israel were not reluctant to speak honestly with God. Maybe it's because they weren’t trying to convince themselves and everyone else that they were good, faithful people.

Can we learn from them?

They remembered times of favor, times of prosperity. They would not forget their story, the story of God's sheltering care. In part of Psalm 80 that we didn’t read this morning, the people sang:

            You brought a vine out of Egypt;

            you drove out the nations and planted it.

            You cleared the ground for it;

            it took deep root and filled the land.

            The mountains were covered with its shade,

            the mighty cedars with its branches;

            it sent out its branches to the sea,

            and its shoots to the River.

Israel was that vine, and God was the gardener that gave it growth.

But now life is different. The walls around the vineyard are broken down. Wild boars—gentiles—uproot the garden. It is a nightmare.

If God seems distant at such times, the psalmist does not sit waiting in silence. The question comes quickly to the lips: “O Lord God of Hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?”

To lament over the broken walls of the vineyard of Israel, to cry “God, we have had enough violence in this world!” to ask “If everybody else seems so happy, why don’t I?” is the first part of our Advent preparation. We need not wait passively. We need not watch stoically. To celebrate the coming of the light of Christ, we must first cry out from the black holes of our own existence.

In one of her poems Maya Angelou has a line about people “arriving on a nightmare/praying for a dream.” Maybe those words say something about our own weary journeys toward Bethlehem. The nightmare of fear and war and broken lives leads to the longing dream.

What is that dream?

One person puts it like this: “We dream that the glimpses of the fullness of love that we sense occasionally in our lives show us what we were created to become. When a young father takes his newborn daughter into his arms for the first time; when a mother eases the midnight fears of her frightened son; when an estranged couple grope their way painfully back into love again; when a family makes a pilgrimage to the beside of a dying loved one and finds itself bathed in the mystery of love; when a single woman comes to see her solitary dwelling not as a place of emptiness, but as a nest sheltered under the wing of God; when a community provides an environment for healing; when friends call us to remember our most authentic selves; when a strange and fearful person becomes for us the face of God; it is then that we begin to sense what we are intended to be: God's children, the children of the promise.”[i]

When we dream such dreams, we enter into the lament of the present; we recognize that the walls have fallen and pray with Israel: “Restore us, O God, let your face shine that we may be saved.”

We keep awake. The light that the coming God brings is the possibility that we might become the whole people we are meant to be, that the world might become the place God created it to be.

[i] Wendy Wright, The Vigil, 1992, pg. 23.